Over the past few years, Peel Leadership Centre has been a part of conversations and interviews with seasoned Executive Directors, new EDs and other leaders in order to learn more about their experiences in the nonprofit sector. We wanted to see some of the issues faced by folks in our sector from their perspective, gain new insights on what it’s like to be an ED today and how things have changed, and to generally improve our understanding about life as an ED or CEO. The learnings shared in this blog may be particularly interesting for upcoming and new Executive Directors.

When becoming an Executive Director for the first time we may experience an array of emotions: fear, excitement, trepidation, enthusiasm, terror, confidence, inferiority, joy and any number of competing and opposing emotions. And there are good reasons why we may feel these emotions.

When we begin at an organization, we may not have the full picture of what the strengths and challenges are until we dive in and uncover them ourselves. And what we discover may not be what we expected. Nonprofit leadership can be terribly intricate and organizations difficult to manage; there are several funders with varying requirements, complex relationships with the staff and the board, multiple stakeholder priorities, etc. It can also be lonely because we probably came from a management position with lots of colleagues and people to talk to, and now, as the leader, we do not have colleagues at our organization; we may have a supportive board but they are still our bosses, and we may have a fantastic team but they are still our staff. Plus, there are programs, partnerships, reporting, finances and so much more that require our attention. And now, as a sector leader, we need to participate in systems level discussions that may be new and intimidating for us. There is so much to juggle that it can be difficult to keep all the right balls in the air at the right time.

However, over the years we’ve spoken to many EDs and we’ve learned that becoming an ED is an experience like no other, and no matter how challenging it was, very few actually regret it. There is so much to learn in the role that few experiences can compare. Leading an organization that has a positive impact on our communities can be extremely satisfying.

As a new ED, there is so much we can learn from those who came before us. Experienced EDs have a ton of wisdom, practical tips and more to share with us that can help us create a better first-time ED experience. Here are 3 pieces of wisdom for new EDs shared with us by some great nonprofit leaders:

1. Get a mentor. Having someone that will guide us, offer us advice and coach us through some of the most critical moments we’ll have as a new ED can make the difference between sinking and staying afloat. For some reason, many of us are still hesitant to engage a mentor but it’s worth reaching out because we learn quickly in a new ED role that there are few people within our organizations who we can really talk to. A mentor can be a life-saving support system. And if you are an experienced ED, make sure people in your networks know that you’re available! Better still, actively reach outside of your network to introduce yourself to new people who you may be able to help.

2. Remember that your voice and representation matter. Millennial EDs that we’ve spoken to advocate for greater diversity and representation at the leadership level in the nonprofit sector. Millennials may bring new perspective, a new voice and new vision to the table that challenges the status quo and forces us to look at entrenched issues in a new way. A challenging or subversive point of view may be just what the sector needs to address and solve some of our most challenging social, environmental and/or political problems.

3. Develop entrepreneurial skills in your leadership. There are so many similarities between being an Executive Director (especially at smaller, grassroots organizations) and being an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs rely on relationships to grow their businesses in the same way that EDs need to build and foster many relationships in order to grow their organizations. New EDs need to understand their revenue streams and there is great pressure to build and/or maintain the financial health of their organization much like entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs and EDs both need to be nimble, think about the big picture but also dig in deep to their organizations, innovate, test, evaluate and scale. There is uncertainty, innovation, excitement and fear dotted throughout each day! Entrepreneurs and EDs can learn from each other so seek out blogs, articles and other resources that are targeted at entrepreneurs and we may glean new skills and interesting ways of leading our organizations and our staff teams.

Have you got some sage advice to share with a brand new ED? Let us know in the comments below or email us at info@peelleadershipcentre.org.

Until next time,

The PLC Team



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